El Paso County covers 2,130 square miles in east central Colorado, situated between the southern end of the Front Range and the Great Plains. Pikes Peak, the state’s most famous mountain, lies within its borders, and the county seat, Colorado Springs, is the second-largest city in Colorado. El Paso’s population of 663,519 makes it the second-most populous county in the state. Nearly two-thirds of its residents live in Colorado Springs; surrounding communities include Fountain (population 25,846), Cimarron Hills (16,161) Black Forest (13,116), Gleneagle (6,611), Monument (5,530), and Manitou Springs (4,992). The small communities of Falcon, Peyton, Calhan, Ellicott, and Yoder dot the Great Plains in the eastern part of the county. El Paso County is bordered by Douglas and Elbert Counties to the north, Lincoln County to the east, Pueblo County to the south, and Fremont and Teller Counties to the west.
The county was created in 1861 as one of the original seventeen counties of the Colorado Territory. The name El Paso comes from Spanish and refers to Ute Pass, which crests in neighboring Teller County at the town of Divide. Some of Colorado’s most popular tourist attractions lie along the stretch of US Highway 24 that connects Ute Pass and Colorado Springs, including the town of Manitou Springs, the Cave of the Winds, and the Manitou Cog Railway. Shadowed by Highway 24, Fountain Creek runs out of Ute Pass until its confluence with Monument Creek in Colorado Springs. There, Highway 24 meets Interstate 25, the major north-south thoroughfare in El Paso County. Other prominent attractions in the county include the US Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, Garden of the Gods, the Pikes Peak Highway, the Broadmoor Hotel, and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
The Pikes Peak area has a long history of human habitation that began almost 12,000 years ago. Stone tools dating to the Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods have been found on the mountain’s western slope. On the eastern slope, evidence of human occupation dating to 5,000 years ago has been found near Fort Carson, and some etchings in the rocks at Garden of the Gods date back at least 1,000 years. Paleo-Indians and Archaic peoples mined the colored clay deposits near present-day Calhan to make pottery and bricks.
Ute Indians occupied the Pikes Peak region by about AD 1500. The Pikes Peak area was home to a band of Utes who knew the mountain as “Sun Mountain” and called themselves Tabeguache, “the people of Sun Mountain.” Like other Utes, the Tabeguache lived a nomadic life. They followed deer, elk, and other game into higher elevations such as South Park during the summer, and then backtracked down through Ute Pass to their winter camp near the site of present-day Colorado Springs. Utes were also proficient gatherers, taking a variety of roots, nuts, and berries from the landscape. By the middle of the seventeenth century the Utes had obtained horses from the Spanish, and some Tabeguache began hunting buffalo on the plains.
During the eighteenth century the Utes’ involvement in the horse trade brought them into the chaotic regional power struggle between the Spanish and other Native American groups, including the Comanche and Jicarilla Apache. The Utes generally aligned themselves with the Spanish against the Comanche, who often raided Ute camps for horses.
But the Utes’ fiercest rivals were the Algonquian-speaking Arapaho, another nomadic people who arrived in the Pikes Peak region around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Although they predominantly lived on the plains, the Arapaho opportunistically exploited the game-rich mountain country, contesting the Utes’ control of South Park and their other traditional hunting grounds. Other groups of Plains Indians—including the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Lakota—also frequented the eastern El Paso County area in the nineteenth century.
The El Paso County area came under the jurisdiction of the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In 1806 an expedition led by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike explored the southwestern part of the vast new territory. At a spot along the Arkansas River on November 15, Pike spotted the mountain that would bear his name, which he called “Grand Peak.” To get a better view of the surrounding terrain and watercourses, Pike and several of his men attempted to climb the 14,000-foot mountain on November 26. But they severely underestimated its size and did not bring enough provisions to finish the ascent. Fooled and bested by the broad, towering peak, Pike and his men trekked back to their base camp near the site of present-day Pueblo, carrying on with their expedition.
In the decades after Pike’s expedition, the Rocky Mountains became a haven for beaver trappers, and the Pikes Peak area was no exception. For instance, in the spring of 1847 the trapper George Frederick Ruxton plied Fountain Creek and sampled water from the nearby mineral springs, which he learned were sacred to the Arapaho. Mountain man Kit Carson also trapped in the area.
The discovery of gold near present-day Denver in 1858 and subsequent strikes in the mountains to the west set off the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59. Anglo-American emigrants arrived by the thousands, using the prominent silhouette of Pikes Peak to guide them to the Rockies. The town of Colorado City, today known as "Old Colorado City," was established at the present site of Colorado Springs on August 13, 1859. Ute Pass, the well-worn route known to many by its Spanish name, “El Paso,” linked the settlement to the gold camps in South Park and the Blue River valley.
The gold rush prompted the US government to organize the Colorado Territory in 1861. The area on the eastern side of “El Paso” became one of the territory’s first seventeen counties, with Colorado City as county seat.
Early maps of the Colorado Territory show that El Paso County initially bordered an “Arapahoe and Cheyenne Reserve” to the east. The reservation was created for the two tribes in 1861 as part of the Treaty of Fort Wise. By that time, the rapid growth of the Anglo-American population in Colorado increased tensions between whites and Native Americans. After US troops slaughtered more than 150 peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne at Kiowa County’s Sand Creek in 1864, warrior groups from the two tribes fought a protracted and unsuccessful war against white settlers and the US military that lasted until 1869. Both tribes were subsequently removed to a reservation in present-day Oklahoma.
In 1864 the Tabeguache Utes relinquished all of their lands east of the Continental Divide to the US government in exchange for the provision of food and supplies, which were to be distributed by government-appointed Indian agents. Yet the promised rations were often late, nonexistent, or unfit for consumption, so starvation became a tragic reality for the tribe. During the winter of 1864–65, a group of starving Tabeguaches threatened the residents of Colorado City with raids unless they received sacks of flour. Indian agent Lafayette Head eventually arrived with ninety-five sacks of flour. But Head did not come to the town’s rescue during the winter of 1866–67, when a group of nearly 1,000 Tabeguaches camped near Garden of the Gods and again demanded flour; this time, Colorado City residents reluctantly furnished the Utes’ request.
By 1881 events elsewhere in the state resulted in the expulsion of the Tabeguache and other Ute bands from Colorado, onto a reservation in eastern Utah. The nineteenth-century transformation of the El Paso County area, which began with Zebulon Pike giving a new name to the Utes’ Sun Mountain, was now complete.
In 1870 visionary railroad builder William Jackson Palmer and partner William Bell founded the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, a branch of which would run south from Denver to the Colorado City area. Near Colorado City and in Ute Pass, Palmer envisioned a thriving resort community for the world’s finest citizens. It would take only a few years for his vision to become reality.
After acquiring land near Colorado City along the railroad’s right-of-way, Palmer advertised real estate for his new Fountain Colony all over the United States and Britain. The advertising campaign was effective; in the six months after the groundbreaking ceremony for the colony on July 31, 1871, some 600 residents arrived, including some from Britain. The town was quickly renamed Colorado Springs, and by autumn Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande Railroad arrived. Colorado Springs grew to a population of 1,500 by the end of 1872, and in 1873 the city took over the role of county seat.
As the first part of their vision coalesced in bustling Colorado Springs, Palmer and Bell began developing the second part, an adjoining mountain resort. In 1872 they planned to organize a town called Villa La Fonte around the hot mineral springs in Ute Pass. William Blackmore, a fellow investor in the area, suggested that the name Manitou would emphasize the Ute and Arapaho connection and bring more tourists (Manitou is the Algonquian word for “Great Spirit”). The town was renamed Manitou Springs and incorporated in 1876.
The town of Calhan developed in 1888 along an expanding line of the Rock Island Railroad, some thirty-five miles northeast of Colorado Springs. It was allegedly named after Michael Calahan, the contractor building the stretch of rail where the town was to be located. A 1937 newspaper article alleges that the removal of the extra a in his name was the result of an intentional clerical omission. Calhan’s first post office was built on November 24, 1888.
In 1895, when Calhan was officially platted by homesteader Eli Woodring, all of the town’s businesses were housed in a single structure called the Long Building. By 1900 the town remained a tiny plains outpost with a population of just forty, but by 1910 it had 400 residents and forty-five businesses. In October 1905 Calhan residents organized a “potato day,” a celebration of the area’s agricultural bounty complete with a parade. The event was so successful that other residents of El Paso County were invited in subsequent years, and the Calhan “potato day” eventually evolved into the El Paso County Fair. Calhan was finally incorporated in 1919.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the US Army established Camp Carson south of Colorado Springs in 1942. During World War II the camp held some 9,000 prisoners of war, mostly Italians and Germans. The camp was expanded and redesignated as Fort Carson in 1954. That same year the US Air Force chose to build its academy in Colorado Springs, where Ent Air Force Base had been in operation since 1951.
In 1957 Colorado Springs gained yet another important military presence when the headquarters for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was established at Ent Air Force Base. The headquarters for NORAD were moved underneath Cheyenne Mountain, west of the city, in 1961. Finally, in 1983 the military broke ground on Falcon Air Force Base (later renamed Schriever Air Force Base), which currently monitors and controls more than 150 navigation, communication, and early-warning satellites.
Today, Colorado Springs is El Paso County’s most prominent ambassador to Colorado and the rest of the nation. The city is routinely lauded for its climate, long list of attractions, and wealth of educational opportunities, from the Air Force Academy and Colorado College to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In 2009 Outside magazine ranked Colorado Springs number 1 on its list of “America’s Best Cities”; in 2014 TripAdvisor rated Garden of the Gods as the top-ranking US park, and in 2015 the thrift-focused website Wallet Hub ranked the city as the nation’s third-best large city to live in.
In addition to the burgeoning urban area around Colorado Springs, El Paso County features a robust agricultural economy. As of 2012 the county ranks third in the state in the raising of horses, goats, and chickens. It is also the number-1 producer of plant nursery stock, and harvests the second-highest acreage of sod in Colorado.